All About Aurora Postage Stamp Trains
From an unpublished manuscript by Thomas Graham (reprinted with permission)
As an outgrowth of his work overseas, Al Davis was instrumental in getting Aurora back into the model railroading business. Ironically, Aurora's introduction of slot cars back in 1960 could be blamed for dampening the enthusiasm for HO model railroading. During the early part of the decade, model railroading had stagnated while customers flocked to buy slot car sets. When Lionel stopped production in 1966, it symbolized the nadir in the model railroading business. However, just as Lionel too what, thankfully, turned out to be only a two year break in production, model railroading began to revive from its "semi-depressed" state. Craft Model Hobby noted that sales increased in 1965 and again in 1966, a near-record year in model railroading. There were other signs of revival, such as the popularity of magazines like Model Railroader and Railroad Model Craftsman. Another auspicious sign was the arrival of a new model railroading product: 1/160 scale or N scale trains. American companies began importing European sets in large numbers in 1965.
Aurora got aboard, saying—with reference to its slot cars—"The last time we told you we had something small that ran around in circles, we founded an industry." (1) At the Toy Fair in 1967, Aurora showed Postage Stamp Trains. "We feel that for the past six to eight years the model electric train market has been completely ignored by manufacturers and that it is ready for a strong rebirth." Abe Shikes said that Aurora was ready to "put trains back in the limelight" by offering a good product in an attractive package. Shikes explained that old train sets, even HO, had been just too big for the average household. N scale solved that problem by being a table top layout. ("You can build a railroad empire on top of a bridge table." (2)) Aurora would add the other ingredients necessary for success: good packaging and promotion of the product. N scale, because it was new, afforded Aurora an opportunity to break into the market and compete on a more nearly even level with the established model railroad companies.
Advertising head Bill Silverstein came up with the name "Postage Stamp Trains" to emphasize their small size. Aurora also created a standard package for the train sets: a dictionary-size case which opened and closed like a book and could be easily put on a shelf. The packaging art work won an award from the HIAA. The intention was to create a complete, compact set which the chain stores could sell to the average customer, not just to model railroading buffs. Silverstein went to the ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria to shoot a stylish TV ad for the trains narrated by Dick Cavett. If the new project was successful, it would give Aurora another staple product line in the hobby field to go with plastic kits and stock cars.
Aurora's hardware, like that of other American companies, was imported from Europe. Al Davis, head of Aurora International, went to Europe to negotiate the agreements. He visited Gunther Kurts, grandson of the father of German model railroading, to secure Trix locomotives. The rolling stock came from Roco of Austria. Faller Brothers supplied plastic buildings and an interesting bus system that could be integrated into the rail layout. The Greyhound SceniCruiser (3) and city transit buses ran on a gray, one-lane roadway track with a center slot and twin power rail system just like Aurora's popular HO scale slot cars.
Postage Stamp Trains came in eight basic sets, four with power packs and four without. There were three locomotives: an 0-6-0 steam locomotive, an F9A diesel, and a donkey switch engine (4). These carried the colors of the Santa Fe or the Penn Central (5). In 1969 a diesel road switcher, GE U-28 Road Switcher, and 4-6-2 with headlight were added (6). Twenty-five cars were available (7), along with all the necessary add-ons for a complete layout. These were packaged in separate boxes for individual sale.
Although N scale became an established model railroading category, the first burst of enthusiasm over the little trains faded by 1970. Part of the problem was that too many companies had jumped into the market, and part of the problem was that kids found the trains just too difficult to keep on the track. Playthings reported in 1970 that mass merchandising chains abandoned N scale, leaving it to the hobby shops.
Aurora's management changed in 1969, and the new company leadership killed Postage Stamp Trains. Aurora stopped distribution on March 1, 1970, and sale of the trains was taken over by American Tortoise of Farmingdale, New York (8). Today some of the same Trix and Roco items used in Aurora's line are still available from other importers.
All of its far flung activities in the hobby world caused Aurora's profits to soar during the 1960s. Although Aurora's success was based primarily on sales of Model Motoring slot cars, plastic kits and Postage Stamp trains helped, too. In 1959 Aurora's total sales had stood at $5 million, but by 1969 they reached $30.7 million, a six-fold increase.
About the Author
A retired history professor from Florida, Thomas Graham was inspired by the kitbuilding he'd done in his youth to research the plastic kit manufacturers of the 1950s, 60s and 70s. He's published several books on the subject, including Aurora Model Kits (2005, 2007, 2017) and Aurora Slot Cars (1995, 2003).
1. See this ad from Toys and Novelties.
2. This quote was actually coined by Charles C. Merzbach for Arnold some years earlier.
3. The Greyhound bus was not a SceniCruiser.
7. Actually, there are only twenty-three cars, but that's a minor quibble.
8. American Tortoise became the North American distributor of Minitrix products in 1970; C.J. Bubla, Inc. presumably took over distribution of Postage Stamp Train sets, and Aurora, under the ownership of Nabisco, briefly resumed selling Postage Stamp Train sets in 1973.
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Postage Stamp Trains is a Trademark of the Aurora Plastics Corporation.